Ross Baker talks to Vocalist Denis “Snake” Belanger
Having proudly influenced three decades worth of maverick acts while remaining on the cutting edge of the musical landscape Canadian legends Voivod count the likes of modern trailblazers Neurosis and Baroness as well as full blown modern legends like Dave Grohl amongst their diverse fanbase. From a background that took influence from both complex, artsy and technical prog rock to its arch enemy of greasy nasty anarcho-punk rock and threw them headlong into a steaming melting pot of discordant melodies and otherworldly time signatures long before they became the norm. On The phone from his home in a remote part of Montreal in the French province of Quebec Vocalist Denis “Snake” Belanger muses about the effect his group have add upon changing the face of metal and hard rock.
“I prefer to look forward and not back but it’ gives us great satisfaction when we here all these compliments from some great musicians. It was great to have Dave say so much about us. He is a big fan and great guy and fantastic musician. I remember when we worked on the Probot project together which was an inspiring experience. He’s a demon in the studio, a real creative. I can even hear a bit of Piggy’s work when I listen to the Foo Fighters which makes me smile. Even some of the more pop sounding Foo fighters stuff has some dissonant chords sequences which I instantly recognise! It’s great to hear!” While they have never been media darlings Voivod’s tireless work rate and experimental stance of creating music has never waved since their inception in 1982. Snake attributes this steadfast approach to the acts longevity. “We have toured with all kinds of bands from Nashville Pussy to Arch Enemy. We never really fit in anywhere! In the early days we were to punk for the metalheads and too punk for the prog fans! It is only these days that there is so much crossover in genres and I like to think we helped encourage that.”
Hearing Belanger’s thick and exotic French Canadian accent unblemished by constant years of international touring you can’t help but smile. His trademark vocal captivated Grohl not to mention the countless teens who bought into the unique vibe which Voivod brought to the party during the thrash boom of 1986. “Being French Canadian meant we had to work harder than anyone else.” Snake began. “We come from a remote area in Montreal where there wasn’t much of a music scene locally. We didn’t have many venues and had to travel further to get gigs in the early days but the perseverance paid off! It was tough but it definitely made us stronger! We have fought of everything we ever achieved and are fiercely proud of that!”
Snake’s pride is indeed justified when it comes to the band’s legacy. Pioneering is a term which is given away all too freely yet the devotion which Voivod exhibit in their craft can be clearly seen. Indeed when you hear the likes of Grohl eulogising about this seminal act considering the contributions he himself has made to guitar based music at large it is a reason to sit up and take notice. Following the revitalisation of the band with fellow Voivod fan in ex Metallica man Jason Newstead joining the band for 2003’s self titled album before the prodigal return of Blacky and their trademark “Blower” bass sound. “New opus “Target Earth” is the band’s first album with no involvement from deceased axeman and valued friend Denis “Piggy” D’Amour. Snake spoke about the recording debut of guitarist Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain as well as working on the band’s first record without the man Belanger lovingly calls his “mentor”.
“It was really strange at first. We had been touring a lot in tribute to Piggy as we wanted to commemorate our friend and celebrate his music. “Chewy” grew up on Voivod. We were the first band he came to see in concert when he was just thirteen. He is a lifelong fan and a student of Piggy’s work. Once he heard our music he thought himself to play and to replicate the techniques which Piggy’s made famous. We could not have asked for a better man to step into Piggy’s shoes. He was constantly coming up with ideas and encouraging us to work harder pushing us towards a more technical and progressive direction.” Belanger mused. “It was a long process which took almost a year to write and record. We wanted to come out with something that we all could stand behind and that Piggy would be proud of. There were no distractions for this album. We went out to an isolated area and recorded in middle of the woods! It was difficult you had to take four by four jeep to get there! Recording this album was a great experience. We allowed ourselves total freedom and we bonded like a family.”
It is indeed moving to hear Snake talk about his friend and band mate with a heartfelt reverence. As founder member of Voivod D’Amour managing to bridge the gap between prog rock musicianship and raw punk energy Snake fondly recalls the impact his friend had. “He was the maestro! He thought us how to play and write songs. We were just a bunch of punk kids playing noisy music and Piggy came along with his virtuoso style. He was into stuff like Gentle Giant and Yes and I was listening to Crass! It was really hard to sing on some of those songs because of the arrangements Piggy came out with! It was like music from another world! He brought professionalism to the band and we brought our passion and energy.” He stated with triumph.
While Science Fiction and apocalyptic prophecies inspired the Quebec act greatly “Target Earth” is an opus whose subject matter is routed in reality. “The record is of course a tribute to Piggy in many ways but also we are acknowledging the end of a cycle of human evolution. In Calgary, Alberta they are cutting down trees and destroying the natural beauty of this country and for what? Human beings need to work together and find out new ways to survive because if they don’t then we all have a big problem. Fossil fuels are not sustainable and we are running out of time where that is concerned. This is our emergency call to the world!”
Mankind would indeed do well to heed Snake’s words but while “Target Earth” is an attempt to shift mankind from the darkness it is hurtling towards it is also time for Voivod to rally and take to the road once again. Once the album arrives in January it will serve not only to commemorate the legacy of a deeply influential artist but to also write a new chapter in their epic history. “After the album drops we are touring non-stop!” Snake declared. “We have to take it easier than we used to and can’t drink and party every day but that doesn’t matter. It is about putting on a great show. People who have heard the new stuff have said how it recalls the “Nothingface” era in complexity but I think it also has freshness to it. We are playing a lot of new places we haven’t been to before like South America and we aim to do some festivals in the States and Europe. It is our thirtieth anniversary so we want to give the fans something from all of the albums. We will be playing material we haven’t played in a long time and mixing things up as much as possible.”
Surely such a flurry of activity from this journeyman act is down to their uncompromising nature to do things their way. Having been a maverick act throughout their career it is still somewhat surprising to hear that new ideas for future material are already coming to fruition. “We will also start the writing process for the next record next year too. We write a few ideas when we are on tour which we then take to the studio to work on. The fire of creativity burns brightly right now and we want to capitalize on that! It is so great to see bands I grew up with like D.R.I. and our friends in Destruction still going strong. Being older does not mean we have to give up creating. That is not our way! We have no intention of becoming a nostalgia act. It is about remaining relevant and always making something which excites us at the same time.”